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Theatre in Review: Angry Young Man (Urban Stages)

Clockwise from top left: Max Samuels, Nazli Sarpkaya, Rami Marvron, and Christopher Daftsios. Photo: David Rodgers

The impact of a work can be drastically affected, for good or for ill, by the narrative method chosen -- a fact illustrated with remarkable clarity at Urban Stages these nights. Angry Young Man, produced in London in 2008, would seem to be perfect for this moment, dealing as it does with Yusuf, a young doctor of unspecified Arabic origin, and his bizarre adventures in a chaotic, xenophobic England. But playwright Ben Woolf, aided by the hyperactive direction of Stephen Hamilton, gets caught up in so much theatrical shtick that the point of the exercise becomes thoroughly blurred.

Yusuf arrives in the UK for a job interview at a London hospital, but things go wrong from the outset. "The British conjunction of the words 'London' and 'Stansted' is a malicious hoax of which I was sadly innocent," he notes, adding that a cab driver dupes him into a long, long trip that racks up a fare of four hundred and twenty-seven pounds. With practically nothing left in his pocket, he ends up in Hyde Park, trying to figure out his next move; asking an old woman for advice, he immediately ends up in an altercation with a park attendant who accuses him of "granny fiddling." It's all downhill from there.

Yusuf, who may not be the most reliable of narrators, is played by all four members of the cast, all of whom are rather mysteriously dressed, by the costume designer, Yuka Silvera, in rather boxy and ill-fitting 1980s-era double-breasted suits; in addition to sharing Yusuf's first-person narrative, each of them takes on dedicated characters, including Patrick, a liberal layabout who has squandered his money on an Internet scam; Alison, his flirty girlfriend; Roger, Alison's rather chilly father; Gjerg, a young refugee on the run from a government deportation order; and Brian Wilton-Wallace, a sedentary, alcoholic aristocrat, who, upon meeting Yusuf tries to invent a past for him as the exiled king of an unspecified country, determined to bring England to its knees. There's also Nick, a gangland type, and Bruno, his associate, who figure in the violent events leading to the climax.

It's a rangy tale, as Yusuf falls into the hands of one set of weird characters after another, but the overall narrative is ineffective because the episodes are arbitrarily strung together and don't add up to a coherent satiric view of an insular British society. All sorts of things happen -- including Yusuf's killing of a skinhead in a club -- but many of them seem oddly pointless, and Yusuf is largely a placid victim, bouncing from pillar to post; even the murder only happens because Patrick and Alison have gotten him drunk without his consent. The finale is notably perplexing, providing no real resolution to everything that has come before.

The most distracting element of Angry Young Man is its story theatre approach, which weighs down the action with extra-theatrical gags that aren't that funny. When Christopher Daftsios provides one of a barrage of beatbox vocal effects, the others look irritated at his intrusion, as if they haven't rehearsed the scene exactly this way, dozens of times. In another scene, Daftsios plays a dog, which means we have to have the old humping-a-leg gag. Every time Brian's name is mentioned, there's a tiny trumpet flourish, a running gag that runs out of steam on the first try. When the actor Max Samuels takes on the role of Alison, another actor rips his shirt open. Twice, scenes played far upstage lead to the "accidental" tearing down of a drop, revealing stagehands caught in private moments. During one of these staged debacles, the stage manager yells, "Just keep going!"

This has been a season for intentional theatrical disasters. Arin Arbus' revival of The Skin of Our Teeth, at Theatre for a New Audience, practically reveled in them, and coming up we have The Play That Goes Wrong, a West End hit currently in previews on Broadway. People, it seems, love to see actors suddenly caught in extremis. Such situations don't work here in part because they have no organic connection to the story -- in fact, they trivialize it -- and in part because they aren't amusingly executed. The cast of Angry Young Man -- which also includes Rami Margron and Nazli Sarpkaya -- is certainly adept at switching characters, but on the evidence here, none of them is really a clown. Angry Young Man is supposed to be a play about the plight of immigrants; in this production, it's a play about staging gags.

The rest of the design elements -- the nearly bare stage designed by Frank J. Oliva, Sebastian Paczynski's lighting (which includes a couple of disco-style chases), and David M. Lawson's sound design, which includes such effects as a car engine and, whenever Yusuf and Alison touch, the strains of Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube" -- are all acceptable.

There's a lot -- possibly too much -- going on in Angry Young Man, but the fate of Yusuf never really seems to matter and the forces deployed against him are neither sinister nor amusing enough. The time is ripe for a really cutting satire on the state of England today, but this isn't it: Even Nigel Farage wouldn't be offended by it. -- David Barbour

(27 March 2017)

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